The AirPhil Express story

You may have not noticed them but they are actually still alive, under the guise of a Philippine Airlines aircraft. Air Philippines is indeed still flying, yes that airline which used to operate those old Boeing 737-200s of way back before turning a leaf to become that orange and white cladded, fun-looking airline, AirPhil Express. You may also have remembered that 2P airline code way back.

Getty Images

They were also potentially Cebu Pacific's possible kryptonite, if only the country's leading budget carrier did not address the competition earlier and more aggressively. During its prime days, AirPhil Express was gaining so much popularity due to its year round very low fares yet, with added inflight perks like free light snacks.

So who is AirPhil Express and what was their story?

AirPhil Express is actually PAL Express right now, but it would be hard to distinguish between Philippine Airlines and PAL Express nowadays due to their common livery and the use of the "PR" IATA code, no longer "2P". PAL Express is actually the low-cost arm of Philippine Airlines made to address the popularity of Cebu Pacific in the growing low-cost domestic travel sector. They actually operate as a full-service carrier airline within a low-cost model, so basically, a hybrid. However, before PAL Express came about, AirPhil Express was operating as a full low-cost model with a few perks. 

Alamy photos
The story of AirPhil Express began with Air Philippines. Air Philippines was founded in 1995 by the Gatchalian family. After sustaining successive losses, it ceased operations until investors from the LT Group, particularly Philippine Airlines bought the airline. They operated the same Boeing 737-200s and used some of PAL's aircraft like some of its Boeing 737-300s.

Air Philippines Boeing 737-300. Getty Images.

It was in 2005 when Cebu Pacific acquired Airbus A320 aircraft and went into a full low-cost model which quickly gained popularity.

In 2008, Air Philippines slowly ceased using its 737s due to their age and competition from Cebu Pacific that operated brand new Airbus A320s. Air Philippines then rebranded as PAL Express as a domestic low-cost airline. The first PAL Express livery was very distinguishable due to the typeface which said "PAL Express" on its livery. The airline acquired and operated Bombardier Q300 and Q400 turboprops to support its interisland domestic operations.

The very first PAL Express had "PAL Express" in its livery. Wikimedia

Due to the popularity of the low-cost carrier model in the domestic market, PAL Express needed to bring back its jet services and decided to go head-to-head with Cebu Pacific as Philippine Airlines's budget carrier subsidiary.

After acquiring two Airbus A320 jets from Philippine Airlines, PAL Express was rebranded as AirPhil Express. Together with a whole new livery, cabin crew uniforms, and a more aggressive marketing, AirPhil Express was launched in March 2010. Flights from Manila to Iloilo, Bacolod, Puerto Princessa, and Cagayan De Oro were mounted using two A320 jets.

Later on, AirPhil Express acquired up to 20 Airbus A320 jets to increase capacity. Quickly, AirPhil Express gained popularity as a low-cost alternative to Cebu Pacific. Though they were never able to overtake Cebu Pacific in terms of domestic market share, AirPhil Express rate of growth was increasing fast, even becoming a threat to Philippine Airlines's domestic operations. AirPhil Express retained the IATA code of 2P used by Air Philippines from the very start. In 2011, they became the fastest growing airline in the Philippines. The rapid growth of AirPhil Express also resulted to the decline of domestic market share of both Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, which during that time had its own domestic route operations.

AirPhil Express Airbus A320-200. Alamy Photos

Aside from domestic operations, AirPhil Express also began to fly to international destinations namely Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Sandakan. They also operated flights to Bali, Cheongju in South Korea, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Brunei.

In 2013, then PAL President and COO Ramon Ang decided that AirPhil Express be reverted back to the PAL Express brand with familiar "sunriser" livery. He also moved that PAL Express handle the domestic operations of Philippine Airlines whereas the latter concentrates on international routes except for a few domestic flights. To further harmonize both airlines, PAL Express was then made to also carry the brand "Philippine Airlines" through a cooperative and codeshare agreements. Nowadays, PAL Express carries the IATA code "PR" with all flight numbers beginning with a "2". While PAL Express carries the name Philippine Airlines, they are still operating as a separate corporation, which is Air Philippines Corp.

Today, people are more familiar with Philippine Airlines even over the PAL Express brand. The market actually thinks that the brands AirPhil Express, PAL Express, and Air Philippines brands are gone, without knowing that they are actually still alive. Air Philippines is indeed alive, operating under the name and style of PAL Express but carrying the Philippine Airlines name. Quite confusing? Well to people not really into airlines and air travel, it may be, but in reality, the model is simple and straightforward. Air Philippines Corp is the name of the company or corporation that operates PAL Express. "PAL Express" then is the name that Air Philippines Corp operates as. Instead of carrying the name "PAL Express", the company entered into a codeshare and cooperative agreement with Philippine Airlines, for the latter to use the name "Philippine Airlines". PAL Express and Philippine Airlines also entered into a codeshare agreement where the IATA code "PR" be used in all PAL Express flights instead of "2P". They also share the same cabin crew uniform.

Now, Cebu Pacific's main competitor in the Philippine domestic market is Philippines Air Asia as PAL Express decided to make use of a "hybrid" model, a cross between a full-service and low-cost model. Yes somehow, PAL Express is till a competitor of Cebu Pacific but we would say not as much. PAL Express offers business class seats and light snacks in its aircraft and flights. Cebu Pacific only uses a mono-class configuration in all its aircraft.

So why was the AirPhil Express brand put-off when it was doing well and it was growing quickly? The main reason behind it was to harmonize the operations of both Philippine Airlines Inc. and Air Philippines Corp where both airlines would compliment each other for better profitability and a common branding. Though on our end, we prefer that PAL Express still had its own independent branding that would differentiate Philippine Airlines and PAL Express, one as a full-service airline and the other as a full-fledge low-cost carrier. At the end though, the number crunchers of both companies know better, and we trust that their decisions are a lot more sound than our judgement.

How do we determine between a Philippine Airlines and PAL Express flight? Aside from the starting "2" on the flight number of PAL Express flights, you would notice an "Operated by Air Philippines Corp" typeface on the nose of PAL Express jets.

A PAL Express Airbus A320. Notice the typeface under the cockpit window which says "Operated by Air Philippines Corporation." Getty Images

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